In Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a playwright searching for larger purpose in both his work and his existence. When his wife Adele leaves him, taking their daughter Olive with her, Caden’s life spirals downward: his health worsens and his distinction between reality and the imaginary grows increasingly imperceptible. To cope, he attempts to stage his magnum opus, a theatre piece that is a full-scale reflection of his life.
In a Film Radar video essay from 2016, Daniel Netzel analyzes Caden’s rationale throughout the film. Taking a deep dive into the character’s motives, he demonstrates how Caden carefully constructs his life. Watch below.
Caden deals with his transgressions by recreating them onstage or by manifesting his emotional pain into tangible illness. In the opening scene, his alarm goes off and a professor is on the radio waxing poetic about seasonal metaphors for life. The video asserts that Caden himself is at “the fall” of his life, an interesting parallel which implies that he is nearing death, or something like it. An additional interpretation would be that Caden’s “fall” is an internal sense of impending doom, rather than a clock running out on him — we see him as an old man, but his fascination with death begins long before his hair turns gray.
As he does with death, Caden also has an intense fear of love, likely triggered by Olive’s traumatic departure. While the Film Radar video essay suggests that Caden’s on/off girlfriend Hazel may very well be the only women he ever loved, this could also apply to Olive. Caden is unable to care for his daughter while she’s still in his life because he is utterly self-absorbed, but once she is gone, her memory haunts him. It is worth questioning whether Caden is sad that she is gone because he loves her or because it’s a tragic plot line in the great narrative of his own life.
There are only a few original songs in Synecdoche, New York. The Film Radar video analyzes one in which the lyrics reflect Caden’s tendency to hide behind “layers of deception,” positing that Caden does this “out of fear that no one will love him for who he really is.” To build on this further, it seems as though Caden’s desire to create a full-scale version of his world — in which there are multiple dimensions, to the point that it’s impossible to know where his real life begins and ends — is a testament to the way he hides himself, inhibiting people from distilling him down to his true essence.
Caden tries to reveal truths about himself “the only way he knows how” — through the stage. Over the course of the narrative, he uses his actors to confront and deal with his own emotional burdens. The video demonstrates this using a scene in which Sammy, who plays Caden in the stage show, commits suicide after telling him, “I’ve watched you forever, Caden. But you’ve never really looked at anyone but yourself.” Caden does not have the capacity to handle his own troubles, but he is entirely absorbed by them. In his myopia, he endangers the lives of people who care about him.
As Caden grows increasingly consumed by his work, Adele is achieving substantial forms of success. The video analyzes the differences between Adele’s art and Caden’s art to understand Caden’s lack of professional progress. What it finds is a key difference between their chosen art forms: theatre, Caden’s oeuvre, builds something new from something old; Adele, a visual artist, is constantly trying to create something new. Her miniature paintings conjure intimacy between her and her subject, as well as between the canvas and the viewer.
By contrast, Caden’s art is so expansive that it is nearly impossible for him to create the same kind of intimacy. He meditates on the same themes over and over again, but he cannot find anything new to say about them, which leads to his failure. It’s the reason he rarely connects with other people, but it’s also why he cannot find “truth” in his art — it is impossible to find a universal truth if one cannot empathize with or understand other people.
The video interprets the film’s conclusion as Caden’s sacrifice. In order to understand himself, which is what he wanted all along, he must first be able to understand other people. In fact, Caden’s obsession with death is only fulfilled when he attempts to identify with another person. His life-sized play was merely a way to avoid his life, enabling him to passively observe it from a distance. Once he makes the choice to live as another person, he is finally able to accept himself, and — if only for a moment — live in peace.